The Key Indicator for Reopening the Economy Is Hospital Capacity

Like many people, I’ve been following the various COVID-19 numbers with interest and have become aware of the various data problems with many of them. However, it is becoming obvious to me that, as talk turns to “reopening” the economy, most of these numbers aren’t relevant, yet people are selectively using them to support their arguments.

The reason for the economic shutdown was not simply to “flatten the curve” for its own sake, but to flatten it so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. It was not to decrease the total number of people who get the disease. It was to spread out the cases to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, so that there would not be deaths from COVID-19 because of lack of available medical care (regardless of what the death rate from COVID-19 is otherwise). It was a particular cause of death (lack of hospital capacity) that the shutdown was to avoid.

So, the relevant data for economic reopening is hospital capacity. That’s it. And we should be able to get reliable data for hospital capacity across the United States, and it varies by region. National data is not likely the most helpful. Most of the country has plenty of hospital capacity and, in fact, due to bans on non-essential medical procedures, some hospitals have so much excess capacity that they are hurting financially and laying off workers. Other data, such as cases numbers and case fatality rates, are interesting, and they can (poorly) inform other decisions, such as whether and how much I choose to social distance. But such data are not relevant for the economic-reopening debate.

Politicians talking about any data beyond hospital capacity for reopening the economy are moving the goal posts.

Benjamin Powell is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Free Market Institute and Professor of Economics in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business Administration at Texas Tech University. His Independent books include Making Poor Nations Rich and Housing America.
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